Look to your zest

The last few days I have been rediscovering one of the basic truths every writer needs to know, remember and occasionally rediscover: Writing is fun. If it’s never fun, why the heck are you trying to write? It would be like a baseball player hating baseball. Remember it’s a game and you’re home free all.

This is the money quote from Ray Bradbury’s “The Joy of Writing,” the opening chapter of his Zen in the Art of Writing, which should be on the reading list of every Writing 101 course everywhere.

“… if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto … the first thing a writer should be is — excited.”

I have a new sign at eye level at my writing station. It says “Look to your ZEST! See to your GUSTO!” It is to remind me that I love writing and that if I’m not having fun, I’m not paying attention.

Now, “not paying attention” can be a good thing, actually. Sometimes you get so caught up in the act of creation that you’re not paying attention to the physical fact that you’re writing: It’s like you lost track of the fact that your hands are moving over the keyboard, and the words just appear on the screen almost as fast as they pop out of your mind.

Then there are those other times, the times when I’m slogging along thinking about, oh, we’re running short on dog food and “Jeopardy!” is on in an hour and I have to do that thing for the day job before too long — THAT kind of not paying attention. The words don’t pop onto the page very quickly at all during those sessions.

Bradbury’s trick is to develop a frame of mind where you enter that first, exhilarating zone of creation every time you sit down to write. Look to your zest, see to your gusto, breathe deep of the desire to live life to the fullest, and exhale all that fullness into your words.

It’s the old garbage in, garbage out equation. If you enter into your writing time with trepidation, you just may produce meh work with an anxious undertone. But if you remind yourself that you love writing — and no one who doesn’t love something should actively seek it out as an activity — then you’re laying a foundation where the minutes and hours ahead with be full of fun, discovery and, well, gusto!

Bradbury’s best work sings. When young Douglas is trying to convince the shoe store owner to barter a new pair of summer sneakers in exchange for his zooming around town delivering messages and parcels and whatever else he needs …. when the late-night walker accosted by a robot police officer tries to explain that he doesn’t need a reason to be outside enjoying a stroll … when the rocket man is looking to the sky while his wife realizes she’s lost him again … when the kids clinging to a chain link fence watch the rocket rise to the sky … reading the words is like hearing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or Art Garfunkel singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or — pick the music that makes your own heart soar.

One of T.S. Eliot’s masterpieces is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s got a passage where the titular narrator talks about trying to be heard and understood only to concede, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” You can feel how forlorn Prufrock is — but I imagine Mr. Eliot looking at those words, having set them down, and crying, “Yes! That’s exactly how I meant to say it,” his heart soaring.

Look to your zest, see to your gusto, set your heart to singing as you write. For crying out loud — because you will indeed be crying out loud when you do — have fun making your creations. Remember that, and you’re home free all.

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